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Water is the New Carbon. H2O the New CO2. This is Global Parching.

August 21st, 2008 by Max Gladwell · 3 Comments

Global Warming is about to give way to Global Parching, sharing the international stage among the most urgent and high-profile crises of our time.

Consider yourself warned. Water will soon become the new carbon. Global Parching, as we’re calling it, is poised to give Global Warming a run for its money in terms of media coverage and clean tech investment…not to mention a good measure of armed conflict. Because when it comes to our most pressing environmental, national security, economic, and health issues, water is in a class of its own.

This rather flippant fashion analogy is meant to reflect how big, green causes have been marketed through films, celebrities, concerts, websites, and so much political theater. So let’s just acknowledge and accept that that’s how we spread important messages these days. Water won’t be any different. Moving on…

In the following, we highlight the challenge of fresh-water scarcity, drawing parallels to the challenge of carbon-dioxide abundance and what we might expect to see in selling the public on Global Parching.

Climate change and aberrant weather patterns are often blamed for the current water crisis, but that’s only part of the story. The reality is that a limited and somewhat fixed portion of the world’s water is available and suitable for human consumption. Jack Johnson’s “Sharing Song” for children comes to mind. “It’s always more fun to share with everyone.” That is, until there’s not enough to go around. Here’s the essence from ENN:

Some 70 percent of the earth’s surface consists of water, but only 3 percent of it is freshwater, and less than a third of that is drinkable. The amount of water we consume is increasing, whereas the supply of freshwater is static, which is why it’s running out. More than a third of the world doesn’t have enough water, and the situation is worsening.

As much as we love a good stat, these don’t really mean anything. We obviously get that the oceans aren’t a fresh water source, despite the unsustainable practice of desalination. For these purposes, salt water isn’t really water at all, is it? Why even start there? Instead, the reality is that about 30% of the earth’s fresh water is readily available to us. How much water is that? Well, we’re sure it’s a big number when measured in gallons or shot glasses, but that’s not the point. The significance is that 6.5 billion people share that same fixed supply. In other words, as they say in the real estate business, God isn’t making any more of it. When the global population adds another three billion people in 50 years, that supply won’t change, other than to diminish through pollution and other forms of outright consumption. So global warming is just making this bad situation worse.

If we’ve learned one thing from global warming, though, it’s that a hit movie can really make an environmental issue. We need an An Inconvenient Truth for water. Could Flow be it? It won accolades at Sundance, so it’s following in its Truth’s footprint, so to speak. We’ll get a better sense on September 12th with the film’s limited theatrical release. For now, enjoy the trailer. It’s fairly convincing.

In case you didn’t know, this is World Water Week, which is being held in Stockholm, Sweden. “The theme of the week is Progress and Prospects on Water: For a Clean and Healthy World with Special Focus on Sanitation.” Much of the emphasis is on Asia, where more than 1.4 billion people lack adequate sanitation and 700 million use unsafe drinking water.

WWF is calling for a global water agreement, specifically to help govern and mitigate conflicts with waterways that not-so-conveniently form international borders. They looked good at the time, right? Rivers can certainly make good borders, but unlike fences they don’t necessarily make good neighbors.

WWF Director-General James Leape called on governments to support the entry into force of the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention—an international agreement which could play a key role in water security for about 40% of the world’s population.

If brought into force and widely implemented by the nations sharing the water of river systems and associated lakes and aquifers the convention could greatly contribute to ending the chaos of water grabbing and to improving the health of 263 rivers and lakes in 145 countries. Rivers that cross or form borders, most suffering from non-existent or inadequate regulation, drain half the earth’s surface, provide water to 40 percent of the human population and generate about 60 percent of global freshwater flow.

Meanwhile, coastal regions of Spain are being annexed by the Sahara desert. These areas are suffering from prolonged droughts while adjacent regions enjoy agua aplenty. This report by the BBC shows how water scarcity can lead to very local conflicts between people of the same nation. The desalination solution will only feed into the vicious cycle of increasing greenhouse gas emissions, more global warming, more extreme weather patterns, and more droughts (or floods). Also known as prolonging the inevitable.

Back in the first world, ENN describes the water issue in all-too-familiar terms:

Some 70 percent of the quality drinking water flowing into North American or European homes is flushed down the toilet or used for cleaning. Our water footprints – which include the water used to manufacture the things we consume, as well as the water we use ourselves – are increasing. The further a product, and everything used to make it, has to travel, the bigger its water footprint will be. A typical Belgian consumes 108 liters, or nearly 30 gallons, of water directly each day, and another 4,940 liters indirectly, including part of the 10 that are used to produce a sheet of A4 paper, 11,000 for a pair of jeans and 40,000 for a car.

You can be sure that water footprints will give way to water offsets, water credits, and water calculators (feel free to link to them in the comments). All in an effort to go…water neutral, of course. It would seem that the $45 billion bottled water industry is about to have some competition. After all, the carbon offset market alone is estimated at a whopping $1 trillion.

Closer to home, The Man is cracking down on wasteful water use in Los Angeles. Because we’re in a drought, of course. According to the L.A. Times,

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa signed an ordinance Thursday that doubles fines for residents who repeatedly violate the city’s “drought buster” rules, including a reworked ban on watering lawns between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.

The measure bars restaurants from serving water to customers unless it is specifically requested. And the ordinance will quadruple fines for large customers of the Department of Water and Power, mainly businesses, that break the city’s water-waster law.

Under the new rules, DWP customers are prohibited from using hoses to wash down their sidewalks and driveways, unless there is a public safety issue or a pressure washer involved. The law also bars residents from watering their lawns when it rains.

Next time a waiter offers us tap water, we’ll be making a citizen’s arrest. It’ll be Global Parching vigilante style.

Of course, we’ve already written about the Great Water Debate with bottled, tap, and aquifer. T. Boone Pickens is poised to become America’s first water tycoon…or sheik, as the case may be.

When it comes to water causes, we’re big fans of Charity Water. The fact that they charge $20 for a bottle of water, which amounts to a donation of just about $20, effectively mocks bottled water and illustrates all that’s wrong with that industry. Charity Water is running a donation drive next month with a unique approach that celebrates the organization’s second anniversary…in conjunction with founder Scott Harrison’s 33rd birthday.

There’s no question that carbon dioxide has gotten too much attention over the past few years relative to the other environmental issues we face, such as water scarcity and other forms of pollution. If water does become the new carbon in this sense, all we’ll be doing is trading one flawed approach for another. Sustainability and our overall quality of life should be viewed and addressed as systems. We can look to leaders like Charity Water to help educate us about water issues, but this information should be factored into a systems approach that reduces our overall impact and helps us live more healthy and fulfilling lives.

Emma Stewart refers to this single-minded approach as “carbon myopia” and uses some interesting examples to illustrate her point.

[A] singular focus on one ecological system, the atmosphere, may cause perverse outcomes or neglected crises in the hydrosphere or lithosphere. We see this clearly in the rush to produce lower carbon biofuels and the unintended consequences this has had on land use, biodiversity, water and other issues. To put it bluntly, your company does not live by carbon alone, but on water, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and hydrogen cycles. For example, beverage, IT and pharmaceutical businesses depend on clean and regular supplies of water from aquifers and reservoirs. Food and agriculture firms rely on crop pollination by insects in order to maintain yields. Electric utilities need flows of cool water, and thus the shade cover that keeps water surface temperature low.

[G]overnment researchers are exploring how regulatory structures could transition away from the silos of air, water, wildlife, etc. to an ecosystem-based approach.

Our friends at Creative Citizen have this down by tracking the impacts of our behaviors and products on reducing emissions, water use, and waste. Not to mention saving you cold hard cash.

So we’re ready for water to get its day in the sun. But let’s not take our eyes off carbon and other issues that threaten our one and only eco system.

Photo: Flickr

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Tags: Global Warming · Human Rights · Online Video · Water